The first seven games, non-bullpen content

Do whatever mental gymnastics necessary to bracket off the bullpen for a minute.

The Reds are 5-2 and have won series against the Phillies and Pirates. They’re tied for second in the division. In both their losses, they were ahead in the 8th inning.

Beyond the record – we agreed on Opening Day that this season isn’t about the wins and losses – noteworthy positives abound.

The Reds have operated so far with a starting rotation patched together like a worn out pair of jeans. They’ve sent raw rookies and washed up veterans to the mound in three of the seven games. The two anchors of the staff, Raisel Iglesias and Brandon Finnegan, have 24 major league starts between them, but both have made great, early impressions.

635960141511808852-USATSI-9245750

Brandon Finnegan / Photo: Dennis Wierzbiecki, USA Today Sports

The Reds have scored runs with limited contributions from Joey Votto and almost none from Devin Mesoraco. There are early indications that Eugenio Suarez’s offensive improvement is ongoing and durable (more on that below). Both halves of the left field platoon have made several big plays. Jay Bruce has hit the other way and with power. Until last night, when he was pulled with a sore quad, Zack Cozart looks back to form (more on that below). The Reds have demonstrated the ability to come from behind and win in the final at bat.

635960082890937312-USATSI-9245730

Eugenio Suarez / Photo: Dennis Wierzbiecki, USA Today Sports

The Reds surprising start hasn’t moved the needle much on the smart money regarding their ultimate prospects in 2016. Nor should it. We’re still in super-small sample size territory. There’s nothing to be learned from it, really. Let’s reconvene in May and see how we feel.

The first seven games, bullpen content

My thoughts about the bullpen from two weeks ago still stand.

Terrible. Legit reinforcements will arrive as health of pitching staff improves. Until then, rock bottom. This early-season crew will make us ache for Logan Ondrusek by the third week of April. The only way the front office shouldn’t hang its head in abject shame producing this crowd with their off-season moves is if we agree the bullpen just doesn’t matter because nothing matters for now.

The Reds may have the worst bullpen in the modern history of bullpens. Here are the deck chairs that Bryan Price has to shuffle in his Titanic struggle every night:

  • J.J. Hoover – Career FIP of 4.18 and declining K%.
  • Tony Cingrani – Career FIP of 4.38, astronomical walk-rate
  • Caleb Cotham – 28-year-old, career minor leaguer for Yankees
  • Blake Wood – 30-year-old minor league journeyman, released by Pirates
  • Ross Ohlendorf – 33-year-old, scrapheap pick up, released by Royals
  • Dan Straily – Picked up off waivers from Padres two weeks ago
  • Jumbo Diaz – 32-year-old, good in 2014 and 2015, lousy start in 2016
  • Keyvius Sampson – Career FIP of 4.99, gigantic walk-rate

That’s it. There isn’t a single pitcher out of that group who inspires confidence. The queasy feeling of “maybe Dan Straily” is all the proof you need. Yes, the bullpen will have nights or even stretches where they look OK. Even the worst major league pitchers retire more hitters than not. There are several lousy teams in the National League.

But there are going to be many, many nights like last night.

It’s nuts to agonize over it. It is what it is. Getting mad at Bryan Price for handling this bullpen is like King Lear yelling at the storm. This isn’t Burke Badenhop, Manny Parra or even Kevin Gregg. This is what it looks like when the front office doesn’t try.  And that’s OK. Given the Reds plans for 2016, it would have been ridiculous to spend real money or other resources acquiring relief arms. The current bullpen composition is the product of legitimate one-year neglect during rebuild and injuries.

Speaking of the latter, the Reds will gain pitchers over the next few weeks: Anthony DeScalfani, Homer Bailey, John Lamb, Jon Moscot and Michael Lorenzen. Several will end up in the bullpen and the ones who make the rotation will push other pitchers to the pen.

By May 30, the rotation should be: Bailey, Iglesias, DeSclafani, Finnegan and Simon. The bullpen could then include: Lamb, Moscot, Melville and Lorenzen. That’s a huge upgrade in arms. Maybe one of Moscot, Lamb or Lorenzen beats out Simon, who would then move to the bullpen. Maybe one of Moscot, Lamb or Lorenzen will go to AAA to develop as an emergency starter not named Stephenson or Reed. And when Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed get promoted this year, even more talent will trickle down to the bullpen.

Short version: The bullpen is terrible now. The bullpen will be alright by next year. Instead of worrying about it, enjoy the starting pitchers.

Leg kicking up a fuss

Owen Wilson at FanGraphs gives us reason to hope that Eugenio Suarez’s recent offensive prowess may be durable. Has to do with his leg kick and improved plate discipline.

We’re not going to be able to perfectly represent a player’s swing with just three examples, but this gives us an idea of the two major adjustments he’s made over the past two years: the opening of the stance pre-swing, and the leg kick that helps him keep his body closed at contact/generate more power. The last pitch highlighted wasn’t random, either; we can see the plate coverage he has by closing his body off better, driving the ball to right center.

Billy is fast and fly ball-free

You probably know that Billy Hamilton hit a home run last night, the over-the-fence variety. His run around the bases was the fastest recorded in the (brief) history of Statcast.

Statcast measured the amble at 16.2 seconds — the quickest for an over-the-wall homer in the tracking system’s history. MLB.com caught up with the speedster after the game: “I didn’t know it was a home run. If you don’t know it’s a home run, you can’t expect it to be home run when you don’t hit home runs. My motto is, ‘If that ball falls, I’m trying to get an inside the park home run.’ I’m going full speed all the time. If it falls at the wall, I won’t be standing on first base. I’ll be on second or third where somebody has a chance to drive me in.”

635960142291974854-USATSI-9245749

Billy Hamilton hits home run / Photo: Dennis Wierzbiecki, USA Today Sports

Zach Buchanan (Cincinnati Enquirer) adds a more important point, that Hamilton so far (caveat: minuscule sample size) is keeping his fly balls in check.

The ball was launched at a 33-degree angle, by far the most Hamilton has lofted a ball so far (Has put only five in play, though). That should be taken as a good sign. Hamilton’s yet to hit what qualifies as a fly ball after lots of talk about focusing on hitting the ball on a line more this spring.

Peraza for Cozart?

Zack Cozart left last night’s game after feeling tightness in his right quad muscle. This sort of thing is expected with players coming off major knee surgery.

“He’s going to have some tendinitis that is consistent with guys who have had a major overhaul on his knee,” Price said. “A cold night, that’s going to happen. He’s dealt with it ever since he had the surgery and he’ll probably have to continue to deal with it. But once it started to affect his quad, then we got him out of the game.”

Before the words “quad muscle” cause your brain to conjure up Joey Votto, remember that Votto had tendonosis, a far worse condition that tendinitis. Nothing so far indicates this is serious. Today’s off-day comes at a good time. But the Reds do face two more chilly night games in Chicago this week. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cozart get at least one of those off.

635960082890937312-USATSI-9245730

Zack Cozart / Photo: Dennis Wierzbiecki, USA Today Sports

In the near term, Ivan De Jesus can play shortstop. If this develops into a condition that requires a DL stint for Cozart, one step would be for the Reds to call up Jose Peraza. Peraza, the headliner in the return of the Todd Frazier trade, could play shortstop and take over Cozart’s lead-off spot in the batting order. Peraza is playing SS full-time for for Louisville.

However, if the Reds could keep Peraza at AAA for another 45 days – to the first of June – they would gain an entire extra season of control (2022) over the 21-year-old infielder. Acquiring the age-28 year of the promising infielder’s career would be a huge bonus for the organization.

Pitch counts and innings limits

Lots of controversy swirling about Bryan Price’s use of Brandon Finnegan for 111 pitches last night. Plenty of arguments on each side. In terms of winning, the third time through the batting order is a lot tougher. But regarding injury risk, it’s worth remembering that there isn’t as much research backing strict pitch counts and innings limits as you might think. Here’s a post from last year about various theories of preventing elbow injuries.

If the latest research fails to back it, why do teams continue their devotion to workload limits? It’s the perfect solution for the uninformed. The rules are easy to understand, the steps are simple to implement and it has the patina of statistical rigor. And following external rules takes human judgment about individual pitchers out of the picture and, more importantly, out of question. … Pitch and innings limits also have the perverse effect of encouraging pitchers to throw with more violence to achieve higher velocity. If a pitcher knows he’s going to be used for no more than 1 inning or 100 pitches, he’ll throw harder when he’s in there, risking more damage.

Don’t forget

If you haven’t already, and if you can afford it, visit that DONATE button in the right column.